The future of European club rugby looked a little more secure last night after a meeting in Dublin of the Celtic, French and Italian governing bodies ended with a joint communiqué that pledged continued co-operation and a competitive structure that will remain under the control of European Rugby Cup (ERC) Ltd.
The statement, issued in the names of the Welsh, Scottish, Irish, French and Italian Unions, was a powerful indication of confidence that they can see off the challenge to their authority that was lodged by English clubs, under their umbrella organisation Professional Rugby Limited (PRL), when they announced the creation of the breakaway Rugby Champions Cup two months ago.While the details of the latest accord are sketchy, the most significant aspect of the development is the implicit suggestion that the powerful French Union, the FFR, will be able to bring its clubs into line.
The French clubs' body, the Ligue Nationale du Rugby, had initially offered support to their English counterparts, but their backing was always fragile and there are strong signs now that they are ready to remain within the ERC's competitive structure.
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England's governing body, the Rugby Football Union, was not party to yesterday's meeting or the resultant statement but, if the French hold firm, then the RFU and their top clubs look isolated. In a response last night, PRL offered a guarded defence of its Champions Cup plans, but those plans fall to pieces if the French throw their lot in with the Celtic/ Italian group.
In their statement, the five unions said they had agreed the following:
"A European club competition is to take place during the 2014/2015 season following an optimised sporting and economic format with 20 teams, no matter how many countries are involved.
"The competition will be driven by the existing organisation [currently named ERC] which will remain in charge of the centralised sale and management of all commercial rights, amongst other things.
"Discussions over governance will be pursued in order to optimise the internal functioning of the existing organisation [currently named ERC].The common aim is to move eventually towards the integration of European competitions within an all-encompassing European rugby framework."
The unions' statement continued: "All five unions believe that it is critical to the interests of the game in Europe that the unions are at the heart of the governance of cross-border club competitions, given that rugby in each country is organised in a pyramidical structure.
"Clubs, provinces and regional organisations form an integral part of the development of the game throughout this structure, from grassroots to the international game. Cross-border club competitions must not conflict with the development of the sport in Europe by unions, this being in the best interest of players, spectators and the sport in general."
Last month, following a process of mediation, the Celtic, French and Italian governing bodies agreed to accept a revised competitive structure that placed more emphasis on merit-based qualification. They also accepted a new format for the distribution of competition revenues. However, the major area of disagreement between the two sides has remained the governance role of ERC.